A little-known nonprofit that raises private money to support the Philadelphia Police Department has come under scrutiny, sweeping some of the city’s biggest companies and universities into the national debate over policing and its funding.

Activists seeking to “defund the police” after the death of George Floyd have turned their attention to the Philadelphia Police Foundation, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to pay for police equipment, training, and other initiatives. Protesters have pressured the nonprofit’s supporters to cut their ties to the foundation.

Already, two universities have withdrawn their support. But the foundation has also enjoyed backing from some of the region’s largest employers, including Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, and Wawa. The foundation has removed the names of donors and its own board members from its website, and also took down its social media accounts. It declined to give The Inquirer a list of top donors.

In a statement, the foundation said it wiped much of its website to protect its donors, staffers, and board members from harassment amid the civil unrest that has gripped the country this spring and summer. The foundation’s website now directs viewers to a page that expresses support for Philadelphia police, condemns the killing of Floyd, and calls for ongoing police diversity and bias training.

“While we are very proud of our work and support of the PPD [Philadelphia Police Department], recently our board members, staff and donors were targeted, threatened and harassed online by groups and individuals during the ongoing unrest in the city,” the foundation said. “Thus, as a precaution for their safety, we made an internal decision last month to streamline the information on our website.”

The foundation’s efforts to shield donors and board members sheds light on a new front in the debate over police funding, one that could turn charitable donations to police agencies from positive public relations for corporations to a potential liability. Philadelphia is one of several large American cities whose police department gets support from such a foundation; others include Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

The Philadelphia Police Foundation spent more than $500,000 to support the police department last year, a drop in the bucket compared with the more than $700 million police budget. Still, critics of police foundations say the groups can buy equipment with little oversight, including weapons, and allow big companies to influence the police.

“These foundations are really well-positioned to — if a lot of public funding gets taken away from police — to kind of swoop in and say, ‘We can fund our police through private money,’” said Molly Gott, director of strategic initiatives at the nonprofit watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative, which recently released a report on police foundations. “That’s part of why we want people to have their eyes on this.”

In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University recently said they will withdraw funding from the foundation. Activists have criticized some of the city’s biggest companies for backing the foundation too, but Gott said she’s unaware of any firms cutting their support.

The foundation says it fills crucial funding gaps in the city budget, paying for equipment and initiatives ranging from anti-bias training to 50,000 KN95 masks during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. The foundation said it replaced antiquated rifles used by the SWAT team in high-stakes situations, including last year’s North Philadelphia shootout that left six officers shot. The rifles used in that standoff were “funded entirely by private, individual donors,” the foundation said.

Mike Ewall of Northeast Philadelphia hold a "Defund the Police" sign at a demonstration against racism in Northeast Philadelphia - and Justice for George on June 9. Protesters marched from the Fox Chase School to the War Memorial at the Five Points intersection of Cottman, Rising Sun, and Oxford Avenues.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Mike Ewall of Northeast Philadelphia hold a "Defund the Police" sign at a demonstration against racism in Northeast Philadelphia - and Justice for George on June 9. Protesters marched from the Fox Chase School to the War Memorial at the Five Points intersection of Cottman, Rising Sun, and Oxford Avenues.

“As a result of our fundraising efforts, every dollar designated for the PPD is a dollar that the city does not have to expend on the police department, which can then be reallocated to other crucial needs within the community,” the foundation’s statement said.

Some of the nation’s largest companies have helped police foundations raise money in major cities from New York to Seattle, including Amazon, Coca Cola, and Goldman Sachs, according to the Public Accountability Initiative report.

In Philadelphia, it’s hard to identify donors. The Philadelphia Police Foundation, a 501c3 founded in 1998, provided a copy of its IRS 990 disclosure form from 2018, but the pages that would include the names of contributors were blank. The foundation’s most recent 990 tax form available on Guidestar —from 2017 —did not include those pages.

Logo of the Philadelphia Police Foundation, from the organization website.
Logo of the Philadelphia Police Foundation, from the organization website.

Eric Cushing, the foundation’s executive director, said the Internal Revenue Service does not publicly release top donors, so they do not appear on public 990 forms. The foundation followed the same protocol when sharing the 2018 form with The Inquirer, he said.

The group was quite public about where it received support before it wiped its website.

For example, a deleted webpage called Wawa a “partner,” and the convenience store chain said it donated $50,000 to the foundation last year. Independence Blue Cross was identified as a partner and a sponsor of a 2018 gala, and donated $100,000 in 2014 to pay for bulletproof vests. In 2010, Comcast donated $20,000 and gave $60,000 worth of radio advertising, and one of its employees sits on the foundation’s board, according to deleted webpages.

The Inquirer was able to see deleted web pages using Internet Archive, a nonprofit that has been collecting web pages since 1996.

Wawa spokesperson Lori Bruce said the company supported the foundation’s efforts to enhance police-community relations. Comcast acknowledged its previous donations, but said it doesn’t have a program in place to fund the foundation on an ongoing basis.

“We understand the concerns regarding our support for Philadelphia Police Foundation at a time when there is a public outcry for police reform,” said Independence spokesperson Donna Farrell. “Independence looks forward to supporting foundation initiatives that focus on diversity, inclusion, and reforms that ensure fair, compassionate and equitable policing for all citizens regardless of race or other differences.”

Two other companies that supported the foundation — Brandywine Realty Trust and television news station 6ABC — did not return two emails each seeking comment. Both were listed as sponsors of the 2018 gala and had employees on the foundation’s board.

Protesters calling to defund the police march down East Market Street on Saturday, June 13, 2020.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Protesters calling to defund the police march down East Market Street on Saturday, June 13, 2020.

Other companies or universities listed as foundation partners, event sponsors, or having employees as board members include Drexel University, Thomas Jefferson University, WSFS Bank, and 7-Eleven.

Last year, the foundation helped pay for 72 ballistic helmets, anti-bias training for police cadets, canine bulletproof vests, improved saddle padding for horses, a drone program, and renovations to the 18th Police District and Southwest District Division buildings at 55th and Pine Streets, The Inquirer reported. The items had not been included in the city’s 2019 budget.

“They provide money and support for different things that the police could not necessarily do themselves because they were part of city government,” said Everett Gillison, who oversaw public safety and served as chief of staff under former Mayor Michael Nutter. “It’s not a secretive organization by any stretch of the imagination.”